An Evening with Joanna Murray-Smith

An Evening with Joanna Murray-SmithThe Georgian Room at the International, Brighton is all serene elegance with its white walls and mirrors, making you feel like you’re on the set of a drawing room play; a nice fit for an evening listening to one of Australia’s most well-known playwrights, Joanna Murray-Smith. Murray-Smith was a composed presence given that only that week her house had been struck by lightning, a wall had come down, and there’d been a fire in her kitchen. She talked about the life of a writer, specifically that of a writer for stage, admitting that, although she’s penned three novels, she still doesn’t feel like an author. Writers have been called detectives who write poetry, she said, and you need to be both a cool surgeon and a sympathetic oncologist; Graham Greene’s famed ‘sliver of ice in the heart’ must be accompanied by empathy and imagination. Murray-Smith describes her creative process thus: an outpouring of the first draft of a play which comes very quickly, in a week or two, and then a year or more may be spent on rewriting, structuring and finishing something which ultimately makes her feel like she’s lying on an analyst’s couch, naked, in Bourke St.

Yes, it’s worth it, she says, for her it’s a passion, an addiction and an obsession. The hardest part is having the courage to reveal oneself; artists find they don’t even have a choice of whether or not they possess such courage because the will to express themselves is so much greater than their vulnerability. For such a successful theatre practitioner Murray-Smith is painfully honest about the self-doubt that so frequently plagues the creative spirit. You need an ego strong enough to withstand criticism, she says, yet hold onto enough humility to know when another’s perspective on an aspect of your work may be more perspicacious than your own. The excitement of seeing your play come to life on stage she likens to 'a sexual fantasy you’ve had for ten years about to come true'. Real life, she notes, is seldom as good as what’s in your head and there is always that question of ‘do I really want this to happen?’ Murray-Smith spoke about how important the design of a play is in bringing what is a figment of her imagination to life, and of the ‘painful love affair’ she will have with the director. She is in a position where her works are nearly always commissioned, often by the Melbourne Theatre Company to be directed by Simon Phillips. A departure from this pattern sees a new play, Day One, A Hotel, Evening (naming plays can be difficult, she admits!), presented by Red Stitch Actors Company next month. She says she’s making a calculated decision to go off the main stage. “I want to go back to a tiny space,” she noted, “and work with new actors.”

{xtypo_quote_right}...artists find they don’t even have a choice of whether or not they possess such courage because the will to express themselves is so much greater than their vulnerability.{/xtypo_quote_right}The Gift which had its season at the MTC earlier this year attracted a lot of attention, not all of it positive. Murray-Smith says that this play has been the most difficult for her, not only in the writing but in her own unexpected emotional reaction to seeing the work. “I felt the terror of owning the ideas of that play,” she said. “I was distressed by the emotional punch of what I’d written.” Regardless of what local reviewers thought, this work is about to have a run in New York and other productions are in the pipeline.

Murray-Smith is often described as being a middle-class playwright; her characters are not usually struggling for money or external status. This charge she answers by saying that human beings everywhere are a mass of contradictions. “People are people,” she says. “My job is to shed a light on the riddle of our lives. I don’t endorse the world I’m portraying. My characters are never heroes but I hope are understandable; they are perplexed and battered by their contradictions.” She is aware of her fortunate beginnings, having being raised in a highly articulate, literary and politically conscious family where artistic pursuit was simply part of the fabric of life. Ultimately, she writes about the sort of people she has known, people who feel a split between their intellect and their feelings; human beings who are a mass of ambiguities. “People who are most successfully expressive of ideas can be emotionally vulnerable and frail; they struggle with their emotional lives.”

Day One. A Hotel, Evening by Joanna Murray Smith opens Nov 18 at Red Stitch Actors Theatre. Further details»

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